How does Jared Diamond restate/reword Yali's question in Guns, Germs and Steel?

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond reframes Yali's question as:

Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren't Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?

Diamond says the question asks about inequality in the modern world. He continues to condense it further, finally asking, "Why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?"

Yali's original question to Diamond was asked in 1972 in New Guinea. Diamond describes this conversation:

All those things must have been on Yali's mind when, with yet another penetrating glance of his flashing eyes, he asked me, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

The question came up while Yali and Diamond were discussing the rapid pace of political developments at a time when Yali, a politician, was preparing to help the people of New Guinea govern themselves. At the time, it was "still administered by Australia as a mandate of the United Nations."

Diamond says: 

The conversation remained friendly, even though the tension between the two societies that Yali and I represented was familiar to both of us. Two centuries ago, all New Guineans were still “living in the Stone Age.” That is, they still used stone tools similar to those superseded in Europe by metal tools thousands of years ago, and they dwelt in villages not organized under any centralized political authority. Whites had arrived, imposed centralized government, and brought material goods whose value New Guineans instantly recognized, ranging from steel axes, matches, and medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas. In New Guinea all these goods were referred to collectively as “cargo.”

Ultimately Yali's question has a major impact on Diamond and is one of the reasons he wrote Germs, Guns, and Steel. Diamond says:

Yet Yali's apparently simple question is a difficult one to answer. I didn't have an answer then. Professional historians still disagree about the solution; most are no longer even asking the question. In the years since Yali and I had that conversation, I have studied and written about other aspects of human evolution, history, and language. This book, written twenty-five years later, attempts to answer Yali.

Whether the author answers the question is up to the reader, but the book does chart the growth of societies and helps explain why some societies developed differently from others.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Well, if we look at the book Yali's question is actually restated in a number of different ways as the book progresses, each of which of course allows Diamond to cast new light on world history and the way that certain conditions favoured certain peoples over others. However, perhaps the most encompassing rewording comes in the Prologue, which can be found in the following paragraph:

Thus, questions about inequality in the modern world can be reformulated as follows. Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some otehr way? For instance, why weren't Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?

This is, essentially, Yali's question in a nutshell, and the rest of the excellent book is Diamond's attempt (and a very convincing one at that) to answer it. Yali's question essentially concerns the reason behind inequalities in history, and his rephrasing of Yali's question in the above quote helpfully gives Diamond a good frame of reference with which to approach this massive issue.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the prologue, Diamond discusses a meeting he had with a local politician in New Guinea in 1972 while walking along a beach. Yali asked a series of questions, including why, when whites arrived in New Guinea two centuries before, the local people were essentially living in the Stone Age. Whites brought what the local people referred to as "cargo," including steel tools, medicine, and clothing. Yali asked why, since whites and people in New Guinea were of the same intelligence, whites developed so much "cargo," while New Guineans had not.

Diamond rewords Yali's question to ask why the average lifestyle of a New Guinean is so different from the lifestyle of the average European and why this disparity is true of other people in the world as well. Diamond also asks why wealth and power developed in the way they did across the world.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel

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